A Brief History of Video Game Humor

As the adventure game genre has declined somewhat in recent years, it's been a little more difficult to find humor in games. This feature takes a brief look at how humor has been used in video games over the years, and what the future may hold.

By Lauren Gonzalez
Design by Marty Smith

Trying to be funny is like driving a car. Everybody does it, and we don't think about how dangerous it is until something goes wrong. Bad humor doesn't end lives, but it can kill your chances of getting a date or selling the video game you convinced at least 10 companies to invest in. One of the trickier aspects of engineering humor is that on one hand, people's ideas about what's actually funny change with the times. Would Reservoir Dogs or Booty Call be even remotely funny to your grandmother? Likewise, if you're younger than 40, is there any reason to believe Bob Hope's comedy sketches would make you laugh? On the other hand, some of the best humor is timeless. Monty Python's The Life of Brian and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb are older than a good percentage of GameSpot's readers, and yet their humor still works today.

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

What we've learned from talking with two game designers (including Double Fine's Tim Shafer), a game industry executive, a comic store owner, a game writer, and a Hollywood game agent is that creating amusing characters and scenarios in any medium requires precision tuning, just like a guitar. If one string is off, the whole thing sounds rickety. Early games with rudimentary 8-bit characters and minimal voice-over relied on a technique comic artists, such as Scott McCloud, have known for years. McCloud's books, Understanding Comics and its sequel, Reinventing Comics, are known for having deconstructed the medium so that it would make sense to someone who's never even picked up a comic. In an early chapter, McCloud shows a smiling face with a circle for a head, two dots for eyes, and a straight line for a mouth, illustrating that as simple as this image is, it looks like a human face. "When you look at a photo or a realistic drawing of a face," he writes, "you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself." His theory is that the smiling-face drawing, which doesn't have specific features or characteristics, creates a "universal identification." This universal identification, he writes, is an empty shell that allows us to "travel in another realm."

We all identified with the fear of ghosts chasing us.

We become the cartoon, McCloud argues, just as we became Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and even Mario in his earliest form. These characters are funny, too. If you bat an Atari joystick quickly from left to right, Pac-Man looks confused as he turns from side to side, and that's funny. When early Mario falls great distances, that's funny. When the Frogger frog leaps away from the snake in the middle divide, he looks frantic, and that's funny. When a player, as the frog, panics and jumps onto an alligator log, into an alligator mouth, and then back out quickly to safety, only to splat into the side of the screen, these moves are hysterical because the player has become the frog. A more realistic-looking frog would not be as funny.

The humor bar has been raised in recent years with fully articulated, lifelike 3D game characters with their own personalities and identifiable features. We associate with these characters as other people that we control, not as ourselves. Characters like Duke Nukem want to tell us what's funny. They have lines and quirks and temperaments all their own. If our own humorous sensibilities do not match those of a particular character, the game may not be funny to us in the way the designers intended.

While it was not our intention to include every funny or not-so-funny game ever made, we've pulled together some of the best examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts at humor over the years, as culled from the GameSpot staff and our crew of comedy experts mentioned above--each with strong opinions on what makes a game funny (or not). If you have a suggestion for a future addition to our funniest games section (Make Me Laugh), or our weakest attempts at humor section (Class Clowns), please e-mail us. Include the category, the name of the game, and what you think was so gosh darn funny or lame about it.

Humor 101

It's much easier to be on the judging side than on the creative side, in game development or anything else. To truly know how to tell the funny games from the not-so-funny ones, a critic should understand what kind of effort goes into making a game funny in the first place.

Grim Fandango is one of many funny, excellent games on Tim Schafer's resume.

GameSpot spoke with Tim Schafer, the much-lauded game designer and founder of Double Fine Productions, on the subject of humor. Schafer is well known for having created or collaborated on many games that are regarded as the funniest in the biz--Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and Sam & Max among them. Shafer says that by anticipating a gamer's moves, motivation, and emotional state, a developer can do his or her best to make the game react in a way that is satisfying to the player. "To me, since so many of the players' possible moves are ridiculous, it only makes sense that the game's reactions are ridiculous," he says. "If the player chooses to ask the same question of a character over and over, eventually, that guy's gotta say, 'What, are you deaf?' "

Shafer points out that games are a fantasy world where the player can do things that are not entirely possible in the so-called real world. "Yes, in some games you can beat up hookers, but sometimes you can also try to hand the hooker a stack of pancakes or jump on her head," he says. "If the player is being funny, the game should be funny right back at them. If the gnarled wizard asks you to bring him a sacred amulet, and you hand him a harmonica instead--well, you just have to have a funny response for that or you're not doing your job."

Matt Soell, a writer for Wideload Games, says that "the funniest gags are a jarring leap into the unexpected," and calls the fad-driven humor construct of "relying on the familiar"--using catch phrases, movie parodies, and bound-to-expire pop-culture references--one of the biggest mistakes game developers make in trying to create a funny game. Soell does not believe it is possible, as a game designer, to anticipate "every possible way a player can approach a situation and craft a perfect response for each." There's only so much time, money, and disc space, he says, and "[it's] hard enough to design satisfying gameplay--making it funny adds another layer of difficulty."

Trying to "squeeze" humor into games that are primarily genres other than comedy is the key problem, according to Rory Root, the owner of the Berkeley, California-based comic shop Comic Relief, and an icon in the comics business. "Working through a level, solving a puzzle, or defeating an opponent," Root says, "when you are rewarded with a joke or, often as not, a bad pun, it just doesn't work. It's as if someone handed you a bag of phrases--a priest, a rabbi, and a nun, a box of condoms, a hot tub, a bar, and four fifths of Irish whisky--and then told you to assemble your own joke. Even if it's funny, the effort versus reward seems out of scale."

Constant repetition can make the funniest jokes hackneyed in a hurry.

Another problem is repetition. Many things can be funny once, but few can be funny twice, let alone three or more times. "When a joke in a movie falls flat, the movie keeps on going and in a few minutes you're probably laughing at another joke down the line and have forgotten all about the dud," Shafer says. "But in a game, you might be stuck on that joke until you can get past it. Like that hilarious boss monster who has four taunts he yells at you over and over, each of which is funny approximately one time, if you're lucky." Shafer notes that if the boss is difficult to beat, "you can die 20 times and hear each of those taunts over and over and over until you're ready to kill somebody."

Root agrees that repetition, while a "mainstay" of comedians, is the bane of video game humor. "Surprise is one of the keys to comedy, and it's difficult to pull off in a game with repeat plays," he says. "Also, the [cutscenes], which could provide a setting for humorous interludes...are generally skipped when pressing on to finish the game is uppermost in mind."

Another game developer to concur on the repetition point is Sylvan Clebsch, founder, game creator, and lead programmer for Targetware, which is developing the Targetware flight simulator system. Clebsch believes that game designers err in the humor department when they forget they are game developers and not scriptwriters, and that unnecessary repetition is one of the bad habits novice scriptwriters are likely to fall into. "A joke that's funny once is very likely to be flat the second time, grating the third, and enough to make you never play the game again the fourth," he says.

It's not just rough humor--it's not even original.

Holly Geithman has run a small game studio, worked at Sony Online, and been a senior producer at SCEA. She now works as a "game agent" (a liaison between Hollywood and the games industry) for Endeavor LA. Geithman struggled to think of good examples of "funny" games, but cited Shafer's work with LucasArts as the best. She agrees repetition is a danger in attempting to make humor-driven games. "Most games are all about action, with a few stabs at humor," she says. "I'm thinking of Duke Nukem, but it was all ripped off from Evil Dead. You smiled the first time you heard a few lines, but then it got really old."

Shafer says game makers must be hypersensitive about repetition. "There is an old expression that goes, 'Don't put humor on the inner loop," he says. "Nothing is funny that many times in a row.'" "OK, I just made that up," he continues, "but it's true. Characters need to change up what they say, not just to keep the humor fresh, but to make the character seem more real."

In contrast to repetition is surprise, a "key element" of humor, Schafer says, "[whether] it's an unexpected pratfall or just a written sentence that you think is going one way, but ends up somewhere else." One comedic tactic that works well with surprise is good slapstick, Schafer suggests, calling the form "one of the most pure forms of comedy there is." But even slapstick has its pitfalls. "I think slapstick got a bad rep from overuse," he says, citing extended pie-fight sequences as an example. "Developers should steer clear of 20-minute pie-fight sequences. Actually, in multiplayer, that would be pretty funny."

Schafer and Geithman agree that choosing the right person to write the comedic elements into a game can make a huge difference in the outcome. Geithman thinks game designers make a mistake writing the dialogue themselves instead of hiring someone, then switches back: "Well that's not fair--you can do it if you have the right creative mix and if you have the willingness to hear that what you think is funny is really just retarded and you should go back to the drawing board." In essence, comedy writers should not work in a vacuum.

The writing of the Monkey Island games was a collaborative effort.

Schafer supports this notion. "The best comedy writing is done in teams," he says. "The Simpsons, for example, has something like 40 writers working in two rooms. They all bounce off each other's ideas and probably get a lot more done than 40 writers would in 40 separate rooms." Schafer says when his team was working on Monkey Island, they were all crammed into one office. "We knew [creator] Ron Gilbert would come around in the afternoons and check out the stuff, and a crowd might develop around your computer, and all these people would either be laughing, or sitting there quietly, and I found myself writing for those moments, picking up on the reactions of the crowd almost like in a live performance, and changing the text based on what people laughed at or didn't," he says. The crowd, Schafer says, would migrate around the room, from one person to the next, and since the next might get more laughs, "there was a slight competitive edge to it that was also inspiring." Working in teams is "great," Schafer says, adding that "the most fun times I've had in games have been those group brainstorming sessions at the beginning of the project where some really funny idea from the game comes out of a story someone tells about their weekend. The feedback is really important. When you hear people laugh it makes you want to keep going, and you don't often get that in games, unless you work in a group."

Lack of courage and self-censorship are at the top of Schafer's list of what developers need to overcome to make good, funny games. "I think in games people hold back a lot because they're afraid," he says. "They'll come up with something crazy and funny, but then take it out, thinking, 'You can't do that in games. The players won't accept that.'"

To back away from taking risks is to say, "Game players are humorless old gas bags who will explode in a rage if I try anything out of the ordinary in my game," Schafer says. But he understands how easy it is to think that, because there are "humorless old gas bag players out there, and they're the most vocal on the gaming forums." But he knows that not everyone thinks this way. "If you try something new and you don't make it work, people blame it on the innovation, instead of putting the blame on the execution, where it belongs," he says. "Likewise, if you do something as a joke in a game, and it's not successful, they'll blame the joke, and say, 'Quit trying to be funny. This is a game.' So it's not enough to be innovative and funny. You have to make it work as well."

Toilet humor certainly doesn't work for everyone.

Dan Harnett, co-CEO of cho HighWater Group, a New York-based public-relations firm that represents video and PC game companies, says that humorous games are a hard sell because humor is subjective. "I think it's even tougher now with the continuing expansion of the age demographic for video games," Harnett says. He advises that if a company is intent on making a funny game that it should clearly define the audience it's going after. "A 'pull my finger' gag may work in a game for kids or teens, but may not be so uproarious for adults," he says. "Or maybe that's backward. But either way it's tough because if I'm touting the comedic value of a game as its main selling point and it falls flat with the audience, then any other redeeming quality in the game is in danger of being overlooked."

Make Me Laugh

The games on the Make Me Laugh list have two main qualities: They are funny and they also happen to have good gameplay. This list is also a work in progress. While most agree that Day of the Tentacle is one of the funniest games ever made, the truly subjective nature of humor rears its head when people start assembling such lists. Humor is also a pride point. Have you ever laughed at something when no one else did? It's easier to identify great games than it is to single out good games that also make us laugh.

The lighthearted humor of Animal Crossing fit in well with the rest of the game.

The decision was tough, as many games, like books or films, have humorous moments, but are not worthy of being called humorous achievements overall. A few such games deserve brief mention here. One is Nintendo's Animal Crossing, an RPG for the GameCube. GameSpot's Greg Kasavin writes, "The dialogue in the game is just terrific. The whole game has this lighthearted feel, where, even though it's not all laugh-out-loud funny, you always feel (or I always felt) on the verge of busting out laughing while playing."

The animal gods of Black & White offered plenty of comic relief.

Peter Molyneux's Black & White has humorous elements, too, although the game as a whole isn't a comedy. The cow, naturally shy, offered comic relief compared with the more-serious ape and tiger characters. Of course, improper tiger training could create humorous situations. The tiger might, for example, spend all his time eating children or stepping on villagers. The radio commentary in Grand Theft Auto III earns a nod as well. So do Earthworm Jim and Tales of Symphonia, both reasonable nominees with plenty of laughs embedded.

Dan Harnett says that 3D World Runner for the NES is one of the funniest games he's ever played. "What made it so funny was that there was no ending," he says. "None. Zero. Not even a whiff of an ending. Basically, you put on pair of those cheap 3D glasses with red and blue lenses and ran an indistinguishable little man around a rotating globe, jumping over canyons, mountains, and other static crap."

Parappa the Rappa on Playstation.

We also discovered through the process of identifying the picks of the funny litter that there are plenty of games that have unintentional humor, such as Resident Evil, with its stiff, B-movie dialogue. Sylvan Clebsch, who finds very few games truly funny, says that "the only lasting humorous impressions games make are postmortem--games that become famous long after their demise due to their unintentional humor ('All your base are belong to us')." "Recognizing the difference between a funny joke or witticism (which will become annoying) and lighthearted gameplay (which may not seem funny at first)," he says, is one of the most difficult aspects of infusing games with humor. He cites PaRappa the Rapper as an example. "The jokes aren't fiction-style gags," he says, "and the game becomes more amusing as you play it, rather than less. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much of that was intentional."

It's the intentionally funny that are celebrated here. Not surprisingly, Tim Schafer and LucasArts are attached to many of these games.

Dragon's Lair

Platforms: Arcade (various, later)
First Released: 1983
Developer: Cinematronics

In the early '80s, there were plenty of things to keep us laughing in the video game world. We had nervous parents who worried that images from games played on our Ataris would ruin the television screen. We had 8-bit graphics that made people look like chickens. And we had arcade owners who looked like the school-bus driver on The Simpsons (the carnies, it seemed, had evolved). All funny stuff.

Dragon's Lair was remade for the Xbox and other consoles in 2002.

But Disney animator Don Bluth made an intentionally funny game--Cinematronics' full-motion video arcade adventure game Dragon's Lair. As Dirk the Daring, players search a haunted castle in pursuit of a kidnapped love interest, Princess Daphne. His search takes him to the Dragon's Lair, where he encounters the kidnapper, Singe the Dragon. En route, Dirk meets up with lava monsters, lizard kings, and a wide assortment of other creatures that attempt to thwart his efforts.

GameSpot's Ryan Davis says the appeal of Dragon's Lair was "physical" comedy: "The inappropriately named Dirk the Daring was the gangly antithesis of your archetypal hero, and his constant brushes with death and goofy double takes were half the appeal of this arcade classic."

Maniac Mansion

Platforms: PC, NES, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64
First Released: 1987
Developer: LucasArts (formerly LucasFilm Games)

The graphic adventure game Maniac Mansion started it all for LucasFilm Games, at least in the humor category. Billed as the "Comedy thriller that dares to be different," Maniac Mansion places gamers in the role of a character named Dave Miller, whose girlfriend, a cheerleader named Sandy Pantz, has been kidnapped by Dr. Fred, whose mind is being controlled by a purple meteor from outer space. The game is character-driven, so whomever you choose to take with you will determine your outcome.

It may not have been much to look at, but it was funny.

The humor in Maniac Mansion resides in the characters, such as Razor (who has a band called Razor and the Scummettes), Jeff Woodie, Wink Smiley, Dead Cousin Ted Edison, and Michael F. Stoppe (yes, he's a photographer). Purple Tentacle and Green Tentacle make their debut here, before Purple Tentacle later took the stage in the highly touted Day of the Tentacle, the sequel, of sorts, to this game. Maniac Mansion was designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick and renowned for its proprietary game engine, SCUMM (an acronym for "script creation utility for Maniac Mansion," and something developers would get much comedic mileage out of later on).

It is widely known that Maniac Mansion underwent some "taming" by Nintendo before it was released on the NES. While not regarded as LucasArts' funniest game, Maniac Mansion got the ball rolling.

Monkey Island

Platforms: Sega CD, Amiga, Mac, Atari ST, PC, PS2
First Released: 1990
Developer: LucasArts (formerly LucasFilm Games)

Monkey Island is a graphic adventure in which you play as pirate-in-training Guybrush Threepwood on Melee Island in the Caribbean. Your adversary is LeChuck, the ghost of a pirate from long before your time, and your love interest is the governor of the island, Elaine Marley. The game is loaded with well-placed humor, from the characters (with names like Gorgon Zola Cheese, Marco Pollo, Meathook, and Manuel J. Calaverus) and their hangouts (the SCUMM Bar--named for LucasFilm Games' revered game engine) to the gameplay you partake in, such as insult sword fighting.

We played through years of hilarious adventures with Le Chuck and Guybrush Threepwood.

"When we were working on Monkey Island," Schafer says, "we were just writing stuff to entertain each other." Schafer again references programmer Ron Gilbert's visits to the writers' and programmers' shared office, noting that "[if] a line made [everyone] spontaneously explode into laughter, it was the greatest feeling in the world." "And we'd then rewrite the dialogue accordingly after [Gilbert] left," he says, "cutting out the duds and expanding on the parts that got laughs. That kind of immediate feedback is hard to get in games."

Schafer says that when he first started working on Monkey Island, Gilbert came up with the idea for insult sword fighting: "My first thought was, 'Are you crazy? Not let the player control the sword? They can only control the witty one-liners between the action? The players are going to hate that! They're going to want to control the sword!' But soon it became clear that it was a great idea, and I was wrong to assume so little of the player. I learned that people actually want to be surprised. They want to try something new, as long as it's entertaining. And the insults were funny and so it worked!"

When you're making games, Schafer reiterates, it's "easy to see the public as a humorless mob [that] only wants the same thing over and over, partially because those kind of people are the loudest on the gaming forums." But he notes that's not the public at large. "I think the gaming public at large wants innovation and surprise, and humor is one of the best ways to get there."

Day of the Tentacle

Platform: PC
Released: 1992
Developer: LucasArts

Many gamers say that Day of the Tentacle--the sequel to LucasArts' Maniac Mansion, although a wholly different game--is hands down the funniest game in history. Like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle is a third-person graphic adventure game drawn like a 2D cartoon. The "Tentacle" in the title refers to a character named Purple Tentacle, who, through a scientific fluke and an error on his part, becomes a mad genius who is dead set on world domination. The plot goes all H.G. Wells from this point and requires you to do strange things with hamsters (well, not that strange).

The game's wacky humor is reflected in its art design.

"Day of the Tentacle was really fun to make," says Schafer, who was codesigner with Dave Grossman on the game. "Games were simpler then, so there weren't so many technical issues to distract us. Also, the genre we were working in was stable. Everyone knew what a graphic adventure was, and no one was questioning its marketability, so we didn't have to worry about defending our style of gameplay. All we had to worry about was making every character, puzzle, and line of dialogue entertaining."

And they did. Day of the Tentacle made GameSpot's Greatest Games of All Time list in April 2004. Greg Kasavin says, "Very few games have ever succeeded at making me laugh, and none has quite like Day of the Tentacle."

Schafer says that "channeling players down funny corridors" is an essential part of humor. "You limit them, yes, but then you also give them funny tools to empower their own hilariousness," he says. In Day of the Tentacle, Schafer and crew did just that. "We give players disappearing ink they can squirt on anyone they want," he says. "It's mostly useful in this one puzzle, but still you can go all over the game squirting people with it and watching their reaction. So you're not really limiting the player there. You're just putting the elements of comedy in their hands and making it easy for them to be the comedian."

Day of the Tentacle is Holly Geithman's favorite funny game, too. "All the elements worked and supported each other--art style, characters, dialogue," she says. "And not only was the dialogue funny, but the voice acting was spot-on and really added a lot to the humor."

It's thought that approximately 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, and Day of the Tentacle takes advantage of that idea in its efforts to be funny. "You can make the solutions to puzzles funny," Schafer says. "The player has to put on a costume that involves a tutu, for example. Tutus never fail. Or the player gets past a guard by slipping a superpowered laxative into his coffee. Actually, that one's kind of gross. But if you put players in a challenging situation and then give them funny tools to get out, they will hopefully not feel limited, but in fact feel like they thought of this funny joke themselves. You want them to feel like, 'Hey, I got past that guard by putting Ex-Lax in his coffee. I am hilarious.'"

The Mortal Kombat Series

Platforms: Various
First Released: 1992
Developer: Midway Games

Mortal Kombat isn't really very funny, but the humorous treatments scattered throughout this fighting series since its inception earn it a place on this list. For example, turning an opponent you've just battered into a baby ("babality") is funny. Grabbing an opponent, saying, "Come over here," and then pulling him close and nailing him is amusing. Like it or not, turning your opponent into a bigheaded, smoking dwarf ("Fergality"), is pretty funny.

The humor is in its absurdity.

GameSpot's Jeff Gerstmann says the series has always had a "weird" sense of humor. "It was most blatant in MK2, where they introduced the friendship finishing moves," he says. "But in MK3, so many of the fatalities were just so ridiculous, the game managed to be pretty funny, too. The series has tried to get all dark and brooding again, but there's still a morbid sense of humor to the finishing moves in the games coming out today."

Humorous finishing moves contribute to the overall funny feeling of the game, because players know that shortly after Sub-Zero falls into 10 pieces on the arena floor, he will materialize and come back for a finishing act that will send his head spinning.

Sam & Max Hit the Road

Platform: PC
Released: 1993
Developer: LucasArts

The first Sam & Max game, Sam & Max Hit the Road, came out in 1993 on the PC and was a big hit. Then, nearly a decade later, fans were thrilled to hear that LucasArts was working on a sequel, to be called Sam & Max Freelance Police.

Fans were devastated when LucasArts cancelled the sequel.

Sam & Max Hit the Road is a graphic adventure based on the exploits of a police dog (Sam) and a detective rabbit (Max) in pursuit of carnival escapees. Sam & Max is a parody of buddy-cop action movies, and therein lies the humor. Sam is the streetwise, hardened cop, and Max is the dopey wannabe who follows Sam while handling all the dirty work. In true LucasArts style, you encounter ironic characters like Lee Harvey (a gun for hire) and environmental features with names like the Cone O' Tragedy. Sam & Max has a decidedly dark personality, which is part of what makes the game so tasty in the first place. A "celebrity vegetable museum" just wouldn't be funny in a Disney film.

LucasArts cancelled Sam & Max Freelance Police after a long development cycle, but offered little explanation as to why to Sam & Max's hungry fans.

Full Throttle

Platforms: PC, Mac
Released: 1995
Developer: LucasArts

Full Throttle tops many "best of" lists, including those that herald villains and endings. But this graphic adventure, similar to Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road, plays like an interactive Easy Rider and should not be overlooked for its humor. You play as Ben, a biker gang leader who's been framed for murder and needs to set things straight.

Ben was one of the more likable and memorable characters in adventure games.

Like LucasArts' other notably humorous games, Full Throttle features dialogue that's built on pop-culture references and allusions to films ranging from Star Wars to Dr. Strangelove. The game is full of characters with names that serve as excellent characterizations, such as Adrian Ripburger and Lil' Todd. Full Throttle features an atmospheric world, in which you find yourself in a junkyard luring the watchdogs with raw meat--a nice touch--and paying people off with toy bunnies.

Deception

Platform: PS
Released: 1996
Developer: Tecmo

Deception was a painfully addictive game, but unlike most addictions, it was surprisingly funny, too. Your role was that of an invisible, dark-willed mastermind who set traps in a house in an attempt to foil those who cross your path. Deception turned the video game convention of having players spend most of their time avoiding such traps on its ear, and the response was favorable.

Matt Soell calls Deception one of the most "unexpectedly hilarious" games he's ever played. "For starters," he says, "there's the overarching concept of the game, the 'metagag,' if you will: After years of hysteria about video games teaching children to kill for Satan, Tecmo actually made a game in which the stated objective is to kill for Satan. And you do it by setting traps straight out of Wile E. Coyote's Acme catalog. Trap doors, 10-ton weights, rolling boulders, spikes--Monty Python's giant marble foot even makes an appearance."

But the dark-themed wonder did not sustain. "Later installments improved the gameplay," Soell says, "but eliminated the twisted backstory. The first Deception is the best, a pitch-black comedy with a generous dose of slapstick."

Grim Fandango

Platform: PC
Released: 1998
Developer: LucasArts

The world of Grim Fandango is pleasingly dark and lusty, in a style synonymous with LucasArts' earlier graphic adventure projects, like Day of the Tentacle, but with 3D gameplay instead of 2D. Like LucasArts' other touted games, Grim Fandango stands out for its stellar storytelling and lush dialogue.

The use of Dia de los Muertos as a theme and setting made Grim Fandango especially unique.

The game makes use of Mexican Día de los Muertos folklore, casting you in the role of Manny Calavera, a Willy Loman-esque figure who works for the Department of Death. His job, as a living "calacas," or celebratory skeleton, is to usher the newly dead on their journey to the peaceful afterlife--a process that occurs, as you might guess, in stages.

The noirish characters--Manny's sidekick, Glottis; the beatniks at the jazz club; and the hopeless clients--weave a humorous fabric into this game, which does not fall prey to noir clichés, but rather develops its characters independently, with a nod to that world. Grim Fandango is not slapstick and doesn't try to steamroll players with its jokes. The humor is subtle, consistent, and believable. The characters are witty and self-aware, not vehicles for one-liners.

Grim Fandango will make you laugh, but more often it will make you smile. The humor makes the characters more sincere and likable. As with any good story, you won't want to leave this world when the game is over.

The Sims series

Platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox, GC, GBA
First Released: 2000
Developer: Maxis

If you've ever taken a bus, eaten at a restaurant, gone to the post office, or walked down the street, you know that nothing is funnier than human nature. Perhaps one of the best formulas for comedy is to stick a few different types of people together and see what happens. This premise has paved the way for reality TV and video games like The Sims. The Sims and The Sims 2 (and all The Sims incarnations) have the best brand of humor already built in, as the games are about humans dealing with life in all kinds of capacities--even when hooking up with aliens.

Players can create their own humor in The Sims series, to great effect.

Schafer counts The Sims as a funny game and adds, "How can someone peeing on the floor not be funny?" Schafer says the humor in The Sims "comes from everyday situations, not the fantasy worlds that games are usually drawn from, so it's very different and a wider variety of people can relate to it."

Besides the sight gags, gestures, amusing mood music, and menu commentary, you'll find infinite possibilities for humor as soon as you spawn your first sim.

Incredible Crisis

Platform: PS
Released: 2000
Developer: Polygon Magic

Only in Japan can the theme of midlife familial crisis be turned into a video game. That's precisely what this puzzle game is--a midlife crisis sim. And it's a funny one, too. From office aerobics to the seven-year itch, Incredible Crisis is a one-day trip through the banal baggage of human existence in 21st-century suburbia, and it keeps us laughing the entire trip. You play as a salaryman and each of the three other members of his family as they conquer the day's demons, puzzle-style.

Incredible Crisis on the Playstation.

Davis says, "Not only is the story funny, but the gameplay itself is also filled with humor, ranging from a disco-dancing rhythm game and allusions to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Godzilla to flirting with infidelity in a Ferris wheel. Though the game is distinctly Japanese, the humor transcends cultural boundaries."

Admittedly, the cartoony style and the exaggerated expressions on the characters’ faces lend well to the type of humor associated with office foibles and social missteps.

Conker's Bad Fur Day

Platform: N64
Released: 2001
Developer: Rare

Nintendo broke with tradition and shocked a crowd of journalists when it introduced Conker's Bad Fur Day at E3 2000. Nintendo is generally regarded as the Leave It to Beaver of the video game world, but in 2000 it seemingly realized that game audiences were getting older (or perhaps just bawdier), and it took its humor up a notch and its practice of self-censorship down a notch. The response? Terrific. The game was a success. It may not have brought back millions of thirtysomethings who'd long since outgrown the console, but it did turn a few heads.

What was it about? GameSpot's Shane Satterfield summarizes it (although it's difficult to imagine the expressions in the Nintendo boardroom while this game was getting pitched) as follows:

Admittedly, some of the humor in Conker comes from the idea of Nintendo publishing such a bawdy game.

"Conker is a squirrel who looks just like any other character from previous Nintendo games. But underneath his cordial exterior lies a trash-mouthed rodent with a penchant for booze, wild women, and lewd conduct. Conker's twisted tale begins at his local bar, where he tosses back a few too many drinks with his war-bound friends before stumbling out into the rainy night. Drunken, confused, and vomiting profusely, Conker becomes lost and eventually blacks out. When he comes to his senses, he finds himself in a world unlike he, or anyone else for that matter, has ever seen before--a world full of gutter-mouthed cogs, LSD-dropping demons, bosses with giant testicles, and a panther king whose minions include a number of seemingly inept weasels. It's a demented world, and Conker's only desire is to somehow escape and catch up with his girlfriend, Berri."

Beyond the slapstick violence, pratfalls, and lurid exchanges between characters, Conker's parodies movies such as The Matrix, Saving Private Ryan (the scene where the soldier looks for his detached arm), and The Godfather. There's no shortage of laughs and bewilderments in this game, but in the end, it's so shocking a production to come from the hands of Nintendo, one almost has to wonder who the joke is truly on.

The Serious Sam Series

Platforms: PC, Xbox, GC, PS2
First Released: 2001
Developers: Gathering of Developers, Global Star Software, Gotham Games

Action heroes, whether in movies or video games, often fall prey to a well-defined array of stereotypes--most of them shallow, predictable, and slightly dense. Arguably, the best humor in these games involves some wit, putting action heroes at odds with the nature of this feature. The muscle-clad, fearless gunslinger is one archetype. Serious Sam is quite another.

Even the weaponry is ridiculous.

To Kasavin, the entire game, including the cutscenes, is funny. "The best part is that Sam is always shown walking really casually, like he's at a shopping mall rather than in middle of a battlefield," he writes in his review. The game's unique "secrets" generate laughs, too. "There are tons of them in most every level, and discovering them yields absurd, funny, and always rewarding results," Kasavin writes. "You'll see the games' inspired sense of humor not just in the secrets, but also in some of Sam's genuinely funny, amusingly self-conscious one-liners. 'I hate running backwards,' he exclaims on more than one occasion as you're desperately trying to fend off a tidal wave of monsters while fleeing for dear life."

Indicative of the game’s humor, in the Xbox version of Serious Sam, you can change the blood to "hippie" mode, where your opponents bleed flowers and confetti.

Ryan Davis says, "First there was Duke Nukem, who was an absurd send-up of the prototypical action hero. But once Duke's crass style became its own archetype, Croteam brought about Sam 'Serious' Stone, who injected some much-needed sarcasm and self-doubt into Duke's braggadocio. The machine-gun delivery of the so-bad-it's-good one-liners matches the game's ridiculous, over-the-top pacing perfectly."

Simon the Sorcerer 3D

Platform: PC
Released: 2002
Developer: Headfirst Productions

The original Simon the Sorcerer came out on the PC in 1993, courtesy Adventure Soft and Infocom. Simon the Sorcerer 3D is the latest in the series, created by Headfirst Productions and available only in the UK. The premise hints at its underlying humor--you play as a teen wizard named Simon, battling a force known as Sordid.

Them's fighting words.

According to Kasavin, "This adventure game was the first game that made me laugh out loud on account of its humor--really dry British wit." Kasavin explains that the series' main character, "a reluctant sorcerer-in-training, would wisecrack his way through the game, basically being really irreverent (before irreverent humor was really in style) and oftentimes insulting the other NPCs under his breath. It was just really funny Monty Python-style stuff."

Headfirst Productions is currently busy at work on its next PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox adventure game, Call of Cthulhu, which is due in late 2004 or early 2005.

The Warcraft and Starcraft Series

Platform: PC, Mac, PS, N64, Saturn
First Released: 1994
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

There's nothing funny about the way Warcraft and Starcraft shaped the real-time strategy game, setting standards that to this day define the RTS genre. But the fact that you can click on a unit in these games multiple times, disrupting it so much that it says something funny, earns the series a spot in this feature. It's a simple detail that might have been overlooked in many similar games, but it personalizes the units and creates a humorous context that works because of its surprise element. The feature doesn't seem patched on, yet it is clearly tangential to the gameplay. It is also done very well.

Can I interest you in any propane-related products?

Kasavin says, "Some of the stuff in Warcraft III is out-and-out hilarious and very memorable. The fact that the game breaks character so severely to insert these gags, and yet the gags are still done in character, is totally crazy and funny. It's ironic--Blizzard's been so influential with its real-time strategy series, and yet no one dares copy this aspect of the games."

Prod a unit a few too many times and he will toss out references to Monty Python, Army of Darkness, Star Wars, and Beavis and Butt-Head, among others. Other lines may not have the pop-culture cachet, but they will amuse just the same. ("I said a bowstring, not a G-string.")

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Platform: GBA
Released: 2003
Developer: Nintendo (Alpha Dream)

This original Game Boy Advance RPG is only the third of its kind to grace the Mario franchise, and it's been voted the funniest. Besides being a well-made, innovative game, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga went beyond the standard RPG gameplay to emphasize the characters' humorous traits. The "stache" meter, a unit of measure that reflects the health and full-bodied nature of Mario and Luigi's mustaches, actually affects the way you play the game--a completely random feature that would make surrealists proud. A higher "stache" rating means better luck and skill. The brothers also have superior luck with the townsfolk when their "stache" rating is high, getting discounts and special treatment wherever they go.

The game keeps you smiling throughout.

Kasavin says, "This GBA game is loaded with outstanding, family-friendly sight gags and some genuinely inspired moments. It's hard to describe; the whole game has a really surreal feel to it, with lots of absurd, yet totally effective humor. It's the sort of thing that Disney in its prime was known for."

Built-In Humor

There's a species of funny game that gets half credit for humor, given that the developers start off with so much of the humor already built in. These games include the ones featuring the licenses of The Simpsons, Rugrats, SpongeBob SquarePants, and other cartoons. Of course, without a good sense of how to assemble mechanical parts, we would not have a car. As Rory Root said earlier on, simply owning a license to a funny character or franchise is like handing someone "a bag of phrases--a priest, a rabbi, and a nun, a box of condoms, a hot tub, a bar, four fifths of Irish whisky--and then" telling them to assemble a joke. The following games not only use licensed characters well established in the humor realm, but they also do it well.

The Simpsons Hit & Run and The Simpsons Road Rage

Platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox, GC, GBA
First Released: 2001
Developer: Radical Entertainment, Fox Interactive

The Simpsons television series is more than a decade and a half old. Yet the comedy is ageless. The early shows are still very funny today. Ralph Wiggum never gets old. Bart's perspective is always fresh. Homer is Homer, but he never fails us.

Tim Schafer pulls a lot of inspiration from The Simpsons. "I really like to be surprised," he says. "I think that's the key to both comedy and horror. Something unexpected jumping out at you is just the best thing, whether it makes you laugh or jump out of your skin. When I'm writing, I'll often watch The Simpsons. On that show they never ramble on with dry exposition, which is so tempting to do in games. You need the player to know the setup for the whole next mission so you are tempted to write it as just a sequence of bland instructions just to get it over with." He argues that, in The Simpsons, every line counts and every moment is funny. "And when they make a joke, they often top it right away, and then they top the topper," he says. "That show has really set the standard for comedy writing for years."

But a funny TV show does not automatically make a funny game. The developers must know what to do with the moveable parts. Dan Harnett thinks that the earlier The Simpsons games "really stunk." "It was basically, 'Hey, put Bart Simpson on a box and it'll sell,'" he says. "In fairness, it was hard to capture Bart's humor when certain first-party manufacturers were hell-bent on maintaining a moral high ground with games for their system, and in hindsight, that's pretty humorous in and of itself, no?"

Hit & Run is probably the best and funniest Simpsons video game.

The Hit & Run series has topped Road Rage in the humor and playability categories, although both made this list. Hit & Run apes the Grand Theft Auto series, with mission-based play and a variety of scenarios that make good use of the show's distinctive sense of humor. You, as the player, are put into different sit-com scenarios that complement the game's known quantities--Homer, Lisa, Bart, Flanders, Marge, Apu, and so on. The costumes and vehicles placed in the game, for instance, reflect the show's inside jokes--Homer's muumuu and Apu's "American" garb are just two examples. The game is not simply licensed one-liners strewn on top of action. Road Rage, due to its gameplay style, was much more that type of game, although it was well written and the lines were carefully selected, if a bit redundant at times.

The Rugrats

Platforms: Various
First Released: 1998
Developer: n-Space, THQ, Avalanche

Unlike The Simpsons, the Rugrats television show is mostly for kids, although adults might find bits of it funny, too. It's the type of cartoon that tosses humorous anecdotes like breadcrumbs to adult onlookers who might otherwise grow bored with the show's storylines. In general, the games do this, too. The first PlayStation game, Rugrats: Search for Reptar, is clearly a kids game, but n-Space did a decent job of working with the franchise to make the simple game as funny as possible.

A high note is the minigolf mode in Search for Reptar. The characters taunt one another while they play, and lines like, "You've won a year's supply of nothin'!" chime just right if they hit you in the right mood.

SpongeBob SquarePants

Platforms: Various
First Released: 2001
Developer: Various (THQ holds license)

Like the Rugrats titles, the SpongeBob-licensed games are targeted at kids who watch the television show, but of course developers would like adults and teen players to see value in the games, too. This is where SpongeBob's humor plays a role, as the games themselves are fairly simple, so as to be accessible for preteens who may not be serious gamers.

SpongeBob and his crew dominate multiple forms of media.

Unless you are a bona fide SpongeBob fan, these games won't do much for you. But if you do find the somewhat dark humor of SpongeBob amusing, the games will provide laughs from the same humor bank.

Crash Twinsanity

Platforms: PS2, Xbox
Released: 2004
Developer: Traveller's Tales

A way to give an established series a humorous face-lift is to bring comedic writers and artists on board to breathe new life into old characters. This is exactly what happened when Traveller's Tales picked up the Crash series, which Naughty Dog left on the curb as the series' popularity was beginning to wane. While Crash games have always involved a certain amount of slapstick, they haven't typically been laugh-out-loud funny.

Twinsanity benefited from some expert writing.

But Traveller's Tales brought filmmaker Jordan Reichek, of Ren & Stimpy and Invader Zim fame, on board to make this odd pairing of Crash Bandicoot and his nemesis, Dr. Cortex, tap a new creative and humorous nerve. And for the most part, it works.

Ren & Stimpy's physical humor permeates the game (Crash rides Dr. Cortex like a snowboard, for example), and the two characters work together in as disenfranchised buddies, reminiscent of the animated television show. A danger is that the established characters--in this case, Crash and Dr. Cortex--will lose their own identity to that of the guest artist's characters, but Reichek managed to enhance the nature of the Crash characters without changing them completely.

Class Clowns

Class clowns are those who try so hard to be funny, that provided you can stand to be around them, there's no danger you'll actually laugh. While this is certainly an expansive category when it comes to games, a few stand out as fantastically poor attempts at humor.

The Leisure Suit Larry Series

Platforms: PC, Atari ST, Amiga, PS2, Xbox, NGE
First Released: 1987
Developer: Sierra, High Voltage Software

It is with little protest that the original Leisure Suit Larry games appear in this section. Matt Soell says that the game "never worked" him, while Holly Geithman says, "It was too juvenile, but I guess they weren't targeting chicks."

The newest Leisure Suit Larry is arguably funnier than its predecessors.

The first Leisure Suit Larry game came out in 1987, although, technically, SoftPorn Adventure had spawned the idea that would become Leisure Suit Larry six years earlier. In the games, players guide Larry Laffer through a world of sexual high jinks and hookups. The bawdy humor, critics say, fell flat compared with what Hollywood was churning out in the '80s.

The series resurfaced recently with Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, thanks to High Voltage Software. (No, really. Thanks.) And while the gameplay itself is questionable (you assume the role of the original Larry's college-bound nephew, Larry Loveage), High Voltage kicked up the humor a bit, making it raunchier and funnier than its predecessors, and in turn making the original Larry games kind of that older uncle who just isn't funny anymore.

BMX XXX

Platforms: PS2, Xbox, GC
Released: 2002
Developer: Z-Axis

BMX XXX might go down in history as one of the worst ideas ever presented to the gaming public. Jeff Gerstmann says, "BMX XXX was a game that tried to be funny and failed. The inclusion of 'Hollywood scriptwriting talent' resulted in a whole lot of really weak attempts at humor. It was a game that, to your face, they'd claim was squarely aimed at adults. But the garbage in there was clearly aimed at teens--and most of them would even find it stupid as hell."

This game was just flat-out dumb.

The combination of BMX bikes, strippers, and mission-based play here never really goes anywhere, but what's on trial now is the game's attempt at humor. Fart jokes (literally, construction workers with flatulence), monkey humor, and homeless people dot the comedic terrain, leaving it (and you) parched for something more fluid in the end.

ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth

Platform: Xbox
Released: 2002
Developer: Sega (ToeJam & Earl Productions)

Because of the earlier ToeJam successes on the Genesis, you might find it difficult to recall whether or not this third game was any good. Well, it wasn't--it failed to capture the magic of the first two games. The premise sounds funny enough: otherworldly rappers ToeJam and Earl head to Earth to recover Funkopotumus' record collection. But making something sound amusing and properly executing those ideas are two vastly different things.

Forced humor was the undoing of ToeJam & Earl III.

In his review of the game, Gerstmann writes, "It's always tough to build a game around humor. Historically, very few games have managed to be genuinely humorous on purpose. If the humor works, then it can actually make up for a lot of a game's deficiencies or make a good game even better. But if the funny parts aren't, well, funny, then these games can get downright painful to watch or play. ToeJam & Earl III, a tale of three funky hip-hop-loving aliens, unfortunately falls into the latter category. It certainly tries to be funny, but the humor almost always falls flat. With the surprisingly clever exception of a reference to the album artwork for the classic Run-DMC album King of Rock, the rap music tie-ins feel fake and forced. It's as if three men who had never heard of hip-hop sat in a room for three hours while watching tapes of Yo! MTV Raps from around 1988, retained maybe 15 percent of what they saw, and filled in the rest of the blanks with tired '70s funk references. During play, each time you see an earthling become "funkified" and watch as Bootsy Collins star-shades appear on his or her eyes and Afros pop out of his or her head, all you can do is groan."

Wish List

It's easy to look to the past with the eye of a critic, but it's far more difficult to look to the future and imagine the next level of creative possibility. GameSpot asked those interviewed for this feature to consider how humor might evolve in games, what comedic films might teach developers a thing or two, and how each might spend $1 million dollars if given the chance to make a truly and intentionally funny game.

Tim Schafer cites Being John Malkovich as a humorous movie that developers could learn from, because it's so fearless: "So many times you're brainstorming for a game and you come up with the idea that makes you all laugh and laugh and then you get all serious and think, 'Yes, that was funny, but it's just too out-there for a game. Too bizarre.' And so you chicken out. But in Being John Malkovich, when they had an idea like that, they put it in!"

What does the future hold for humor in games? Schafer's Psychonauts might be part of that picture.

Schafer's team at Double Fine is currently working on Psychonauts, an action game for the Xbox, PC, and PlayStation 2 due out in 2005. Dan Harnett says Psychonauts is "absolutely hysterical." "The incorporation of humor in games is improving as games have gotten better at providing a more emotive or evocative experience," he says. "For example, I think the Oddworld games did a great job of having people relate to the main character, probably because their character development and story were so evolved that they allowed players to see a lot of themselves in the character's plight and persona. As a result, many of the character's moves and sounds are funny." Psychonauts, he says, is funny because of its originality, storyline, and character development. "So maybe that's it," he concludes. "Maybe you need a great storyline and a fully realized character who players can relate to in order to then deliver quality humor."

Schafer says that humor is a large part of Psychonauts. "This is the first game where I feel I really haven't held back at all, especially with the comedy writing. Even though I had a lot of creative freedom at LucasArts, I still [had a] boss, and in the back of my mind would always be the question, 'Hmm. Will this line get me fired? Will this line make George Lucas mad?'" On Psychonauts, he says, "I've only had to worry about, 'Hmm. Is this funny?' If it's funny, it goes in without worrying if it might get us in trouble. Maybe we'll pay for that later, but I think the game is much more entertaining because of it."

Harnett thinks that This is Spinal Tap and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are two humorous films that game developers could learn from, for the same reason: "Both films were very subtle in the delivery of their humor. There was a scene in Spinal Tap where PR hack Bobbi Fleckman held a party for the launch of the band's new album, Smell the Glove. The whole band shows up at this Fleckman fete, and as the camera pans around the circle, we notice--not at first, perhaps--that every band member has a canker sore on his lip. In the movie, no one even acknowledges it--it's as if canker sores and rock bands go hand in hand--but it's there for the audience to pick up on."

Game designers and writers could look to comics for inspiration.

Sylvan Clebsch would not recommend anything from the cinema for other developers to learn from. "Movies are the antithesis of games, in nearly every way," he says. "The more the game industry tries to copy the movie industry, the more money it seems to lose." Similarly, Rory Root suggests game developers look to comics and graphic novels, instead of movies, for humorous inspiration. Look to "the marginalia of Sergio Aragones, or Evan Dorkin," or to Top 10, the "hilarious" series of graphic novels by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Xander Cannon. "A Hill Street Blues-meets-Watchmen type of series absolutely chock-full of visual and verbal puns," he says. "The through story works, and being from Alan Moore works well, but the Easter Eggs scattered on every page add another level to enjoy.

Matt Soell, on the other hand, thinks that developers could use a "healthy dose of early film-comedy pioneers like Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin," because they did more with less. "I also appreciate the satire-as-sledgehammer of Brass Eye," he says. Geithman agrees with Harnett that Monty Python is a good place to start, adding, "There is a range of what's funny--campy humor to witty humor. Evil Dead to anything Monty Python to The Daily Show. It depends on the game and what slant you want to take. I don't think Jon Stewart's writers would do a good job writing funny dialogue for a platformer."

Geithman also notes that humor is not all about dialogue: "Art style and little animations and gestures from characters can add a lot of personality and humor to a game. Someone has to think that's worthwhile to set aside the bandwidth to make characters do a large variety of funny things just because."

If given $1 million to make a game, Geithman says her choice would be easy. "I'd buy back my game that got canned, call my creative partner, and finish that puppy off. And laugh all the way to the bank."

"If I only had a million dollars," Schafer says, "I would have to use South Park as my inspiration because they are a great example of being funny on the cheap."

Clebsch says he'd put the money in a numbered bank account in Switzerland. "That kind of funding for any game is unnecessary, and a perfect example of why games are becoming dull and repetitive (large corporations investing millions of dollars aren't interested in taking chances on games, but are looking for 'sure things', much like Hollywood)." But he does have a game idea. "My first task would be identifying my audience. Who is the game for? The best bet is kids, and the younger the better, since repetition is a learning tool for them, rather than a smash-your-PC-because-it-keeps-making-that-noise tool," he says. "Instead of looking for a funny script or premise, I'd look for exaggerated gameplay--that's what makes Mario Kart, an otherwise traditional driving game, entertaining." He adds that the "attempts at actual jokes" in Mario Kart got old for him quickly, but that the humor of "surreal weapons and unnatural physics is lasting."

Root says he'd use his money to acquire inspiration to create a series of funny games: "I'd hire Terry Pratchett. His Disc World Universe is large, complex, and side-splittingly funny. Besides, since he writes in English, the problem with translating puns would not arise."

The Seinfeld approach of finding humor in everyday life might be another direction for funny games to go in.

Harnett would look for inspiration in the trials and tribulations of everyday life. "I would nose through the wreckage of other people's relationships," he says. "I would kick over the rock of their carefully constructed public personas to get at their real selves. I would look through the medicine cabinets of great men and women, and then I would scream in terror at what I had found. Once the screaming stopped, I would be prepared to develop the world's greatest comedic video game." But where would all that money go? "I'd do it for free," he says, "or for one last shot at finishing 3D World Runner." Soell says the best funny stuff he conjures up "just falls out of the ether and into my skull," noting he would "use that money to buy a lot of ether" to inspire the process. "I think games are still in the cave-painting stage when it comes to generating an intense and immediate emotional reaction, be it laughter or tears," he says. "That's not to say games haven't gotten better at it or won't continue to do so--just that we have a long road ahead of us."

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